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Seeing Eye to Eye

One of the most famous Rabbinic reinterpretations of Torah law is for the precept of “an eye for an eye” (Shmot 21:24).  Bava Kamma 83-84 cycles through multiple reasons why the law cannot be taken literally and must rather be interpreted as monetary compensation. The explanations range from textual comparisons to logical reasons. Despite the rejection of many of the proofs, the Rabbis do not waver from their claim that the Torah could not have literally meant that a person’s eye should be put out in retaliation for his crime. Here is one of the many possible proofs brought:

“Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: ‘An eye for an eye’ (Leviticus 24:20), is referring to monetary restitution. . .There may be a case where there was a blind person and he blinded another, or there was one with a severed limb and he severed the limb of another, or there was a lame person and he caused another to be lame. In this case, how can I fulfill ‘an eye for an eye’?” (Bava Kamma 84a)

To our modern ears, schooled in Rabbinic interpretation, this is the obvious meaning of the verse. How could the merciful Torah suggest taking out someone’s eye? But what if someone does not accept Rabbinic interpretations? How would you explain the law to that person? This was the problem faced by Rav Saadia Gaon with the Karaites.

Before we explain Rav Saadia’s answer, some background. If you have heard of the Karaites, you may have confused them with the Sadducees, their distant predecessors (see here), or the Samaritans (and here). While they share similarities they are not the same. The origin story of the Karaites is somewhat murky. At some point in the golden age of Babylonian Jewry, the time of the Geonim (8th-9th centuries), a group of Jews objected to the Rabbinic interpretations of the Written Torah. Their leader was Anan ben David. Some Rabbinate accounts claim that Anan was passed over for position of the Exilarch, the head of Babylonian Jewry, and his revenge was to create a new branch of Judaism.

Karaite interpretations of the Torah differ from Rabbinate ones. Perhaps the most famous example pertains to Shabbat. Rabbinate Jews believe that when the Torah says you cannot light a fire on Shabbat, it does not include fires lit before Shabbat. Therefore, keeping lights on and stoves banked to have light and hot food on Shabbat is not only permitted but laudable, adding to the enjoyment of Shabbat. The Karaites on the other hand forbid this. In the polemics against the Karaites in the Middle Ages one weapon that Rabbinate Jews had was cholent. Some form of a long cooking stew exists in most Jewish communities, precisely to refute this Karaite approach to Shabbat. One commentary goes so far as to suggest that Jews who do not eat cholent are suspected of being Karaites!

Karaite synagogue in Moshav Matzliach

נריה הרואה at he.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Other differences include no wearing of tefillin; they see the commandment of having God’s words on your heart and your arm as metaphorical. They take different species on Sukkot and they have no problem with eating chicken and milk together. Their prayerbook is almost wholly made up of Biblical passages and they do not have the amida (shemoneh esreh) prayer. Their calendar is still based on eye witness sightings of the moon and they will add a month to the calendar in the spring if the barley is not ripe yet by Nisan.

Karaites spread to the land of Israel, to Egypt and to other countries. At one point they were a very large group and we have testimony from the Cairo Genizah of “intermarriages” between Karaites and Rabbanites. As they became more powerful, there were rabbis who began to polemicize against them. The most important and erudite of these was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942).

Ketubah between Karaite bride and Rabbanite groom

Public domain, Cairo Genizah

Rav Saadia has been called “first in everything.” He was the first to translate the Bible into Arabic, the first to write a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary, the first (but by no means the last) who tried to reconcile the Bible and non-Jewish philosophy and the first to write systematic halachic works on specific subjects. He was not afraid of controversy and seemed to invite it wherever he went. He lived in Egypt, the Land of Israel and Bagdad and eventually became the head of the famed Talmudic yeshiva at Pumbedita.

Rav Saadia understood that the strong influence of the Karaites was a danger to Judaism. He polemicized with them in person, through verse and in his Torah commentary. He did not use proofs from Rabbinic law against their ideas, since they did not accept Rabbinic authority. Rather, he used logic and Bible verses to prove them wrong. The example of “an eye for an eye” is a great one to show how Rav Saadia worked. He wrote two commentaries on the Torah. The short one was basically a translation with short explanations in Arabic and was meant for non-Jews. But he also wrote a longer commentary that delved more deeply into Torah ideas. This was also written in Arabic and sadly some of it was lost. However, sometimes it is quoted by other writers and that is the case here. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 – 1167) in his long commentary to Shemot quotes Rav Saadia’s arguments with a Karaite named Ben Zuta:

“Ben Zuta responded: ‘as they did unto me, so have I done unto them,’ (Judges 15:11) The Gaon retorted . . now Samson did not take their wives and hand them over to others [which is what the Philistines did to him], he only repaid them for their dastardly acts.“ (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:24)

Rav Saadia explains that just as Samson’s retribution to the Philistines was not exactly what they had done to him, so too an eye for an eye does not have to mean taking out someone’s eye. After refuting other arguments of Ben Zuta, Rav Saadia concludes with his philosophy, concisely summing up the Rabbinic position:

“The general rule is that we cannot fully explain any commandment written in the Torah unless we rely on the words of our Sages of blessed memory. Just as we received the Torah from our fathers, so did we receive the Oral Law. There is no difference between them.” (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:24)

At the very end of the quote, Rav Saadia adds something which shows the power of the Karaite idea:

“it is fitting for the culprit to give his eye in place of his victim’s eye if he does not pay ransom for it.” (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:24)

While Rav Saadia acknowledges that the Karaite’s literal explanation of the verse is impossible, he still wants to understand why the Torah would choose that language. The words an eye for an eye show the severity of the crime. In a world of perfect justice, the culprit’s eye should be taken out. But we do not live in such a world so we must rely on the Rabbis to show us how to interpret laws like this.

Rav Saadia Gaon – first in the hearts of his countrymen!

Saadia Gaon street in Jerusalem

zeevveez from Jerusalem, Israel, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the “Darkaynu” program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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